Reason beyond rationality - David Sayer

This is a lengthy quote from Sayer: Sayer, R. A. (2011). Why things matter to people : social science, values and ethical life. Cambridge, UK ; New York: Cambridge University Press, pp. 59-60.

Many of us are all too familiar with the rise of audits and the imposition of standardized procedures on activities which seem to defy standardization. Supposedly, these provide rational systems for organizing and assessing the performance of individuals and institutions. In universities, research and teaching, as well as a host of other activities, are increasingly audited, rated and ranked. Teaching comes to be modelled as a rational process of setting ‘learning objectives’, deciding how these are to be ‘delivered’, designing assessment procedures that test how far students have achieved the specified ‘learning outcomes’, as if courses consisted of separable bits of knowledge or skill that could simply be ‘uploaded’ by students. The whole technology is intended to allow the process to be analysed and evaluated. Teaching is therefore treated much as a production engineer might treat an industrial process – as capable of being broken down into rationally ordered, standardized, measurable units, so that wastage and inefficiency can be identified and eliminated, and quality improved. A general, abstract technology is thus applied to every course, from aesthetics to zoology. Just what the learning objectives are apparently does not matter, as long as a rational, means–ends analysis is used to make sure that they are met. Instead of seemingly inscrutable processes controlled by unaccountable producers, we have supposedly rigorous methods for opening the business of education to public view and comparison. Equivalent developments can be found in other professions, such as social work, policing and health services. The use of such general frameworks and procedures may be driven by a managerial zeal that imagines that it can clear-sightedly root out and improve the apparently inefficient and ad hoc ways of working of the practitioners themselves. But it can also be driven by a well-meaning pursuit of accountability and procedural fairness, so that different individuals and institutions are treated in the same, standardized way, instead of arbitrarily. Thus, equal opportunities policies for recruitment may require interviewers to ask job applicants for a particular vacancy exactly the same questions, regardless of their different identities and experience.

Those who have to ‘implement’ these technologies – the ‘audit subjects’ – often have serious doubts about them and argue that they obstruct rather than assist their effectiveness. Typically, activities become oriented to ‘ticking boxes’ and meeting external targets instead of pursuing the goals and internal standards of the practice itself. Teachers begin to worry more about meeting the audit targets than about the complex, messy and elusive matter of how their students’ understanding is developing. Faced with these intrusive technologies, however, sceptical practitioners may find it hard to articulate just what is being suppressed by them. Just how does a good teacher teach, or a student learn? How do tutors mark essays? Many of the practical skills and knowledge seem intuitive and resistant to formalization and standardization. Those who resist audits and the like are therefore liable to be regarded merely as conservative defenders of unexamined habit, tradition and privilege.